Last month I turned 60. I guess that puts me in the “old” category, although in my mind I still think I’m 28. I thought it might encourage a younger leader if I shared some of the things I’ve learned in 30 years of ministry that have shaped me, changed me, and given me faith for the future. Consider this a follow-up to the post I wrote five years ago on being a 55 year old worship leader.
Five lessons learned
1. Direct your desires.
God tells us in Prov. 4:23, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” The course of my life is determined largely by the state of my heart; i.e., my affections, desires, and thoughts. That means what I want is massively significant. My heart is revealed in what I do with my free time, what I think about when no one is around, what I wish I could be doing, and how I respond when I don’t get something. Failing to cultivate Christ-exalting desires is one reason people in ministry end up jumping ship, forsaking the faith, leaving their families, and burning out. They love music, pleasure, reputation, financial security, or something else more than Jesus. King David said, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37:4). God commands us to delight in him because there is nothing better we can delight in. Pursuing ultimate joy and satisfaction in something other than the Lord will eventually lead to disappointment and possibly destruction. And by the way, people listen to your teaching and singing, but they follow your passions.
2. Keep ministry and relationship together.
I’ll never forget sitting in in CJ Mahaney’s office in December 1983, seeking counsel about a potential move to Philadelphia. I thought we should move. Julie didn’t. I told CJ about my desire to work among inner city youth, teach marriage seminars, do counseling, and be a worship pastor. After listening carefully, he told me he saw a genuine gift of mercy, but noticed I hadn’t mentioned wanting to serve with any specific people. He said ministry flowed most naturally out of relationship, and referenced the nourishment that comes through the joints and ligaments of the church body (Eph. 4:16, Col. 2:19). That counsel changed the trajectory of my life. I realized I was valuing my gifts over the people God had joined me to and was pursuing ministry based on who would help me fulfill “my calling.” I’ve learned that if I do life with those I respect, who root me in God’s Word and the gospel, and who make me more like the Savior, ministry will be the natural result.
3. See everything as an opportunity to serve, learn, and be faithful.
When I first became a pastor I thought I had “arrived.” I saw my job as helping others attain the degree of godliness and wisdom I had achieved. It didn’t take me long – well, actually, it took a few years – to realize how wrong-headed I was. We never grow beyond serving. Jesus said the greatest in the kingdom is the one who is the servant of all (Mk. 9:35). Even my leading should spring from a desire to serve others. We never stop learning. In fact, the more we know, the more we understand how little we know. It’s one of the paradoxes of the kingdom. So keep reading. Keep asking questions. Keep expressing your opinions humbly. We can never be more than faithful. God hasn’t called me to be famous, popular, cool, edgy, hip, or endlessly creative. He’s called me to be faithful. Faithful to his Word. Faithful to the gospel. Faithful to my wife and children. Faithful to my church. Faithful to those who don’t know Christ. Do what God has called you to do without regard for the world’s opinions and assessment. Be faithful.
4. Glory in the gospel every day.
Glorying in the gospel is recognizing that who Jesus is and what he did through his incarnation, perfect life, substitutionary death, and triumphant resurrection is more important than who I am and what I do. It’s believing that Christ is my life (Col. 3:4). Because of Christ’s atoning work I am released from condemnation, reconciled to God, adopted into God’s family, forever secure in God’s love, freed from sin’s power, and victorious in death. (Rom. 8:1; Rom. 5:10; Rom. 8:15; Rom. 8:37-39; Gal. 5:24; 1Cor. 15:54-55). My suffering is never meaningless (Rom. 8:28-30). Viewing the gospel as boring or irrelevant says nothing about the gospel and volumes about me. Everything – and I mean everything – in my life is affected by the good news of Jesus Christ and what he’s done. Nothing is more important for me to remember or to share with others.
5. Overflow with gratefulness.
God is serious about our being grateful. Ungratefulness is the root of idolatry and enmity with God (Rom. 1:21). “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17). Being thankful roots us in the reality of our condition. We often obscure that reality by thinking we deserve special treatment, notice, or commendation. We hold fast to our rights, and if they aren’t honored, we think we have the right to complain. A lack of gratefulness is evident when we consider our accomplishments and fail to see the faces of our mentors, teachers, encouragers, and even our critics who helped us get where we are. If I’m not cultivating gratefulness I’ll most likely be cultivating attitudes like cynicism, belittling others, apathy, harshness, discouragement, and self-centeredness. John Stott wisely said, “Gratefulness is a soil in which pride does not easily grow.” Whatever my situation, if I’ve received forgiveness through the death of Christ and have been adopted into God’s family, I am more blessed than I could possibly imagine or express. I have more than 10,000 reasons to bless the Lord.
An exercise in gratefulness
It was this last point that most affected me as I turned 60. I was overwhelmed by the number of people God has brought into my life who have been a means of grace to me. In particular, I thought of CJ, whom I’ve known since the mid 70s and have served with since the late 80s, co-laboring in the same church for fifteen years, and then helping to plant our current church, Sovereign Grace Church of Louisville, in Louisville, KY in 2012.
So when Julie asked me what I wanted to do for my 60th birthday I didn’t have to think long. I told her I wanted to thank CJ for the impact he’s had on my life.
So Julie and I took CJ and his wife, Carolyn, out for dinner. During the meal, I told CJ that because of God’s grace working through his teaching, counsel, and example, I love Julie more passionately (38 years and counting). I’ve become a more devoted father and intentional pastor. I’ve seen the inestimable value of God’s Word in study and preaching. I prize the local church more. I told him how he’s taught me to be a humble student of other men and ministries. I’ve become a more decisive and courageous leader. Even though he makes no claim to be a musician, I’m a more effective corporate worship leader because of his input. I’ve learned the value and practice of serving others with joy. For decades, CJ has modeled a deep appreciation for theological study and training, even though he only graduated from high school. He’s led me in being discerning about and responding to the Spirit’s spontaneous impressions. I’ve become more generous, having observed and experienced CJ’s lavish generosity for years. I’ve learned to encourage people more regularly and specifically. I’ve seen the importance of consistently investing my life in the next generation.
Most of all, by watching and listening to CJ, I’ve become more aware of the power and sweetness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. I’ve seen that in a fresh way in recent years, as CJ has been the target of false allegations, personal attacks, and widespread slander. His steadfast trust in a sovereign God, joyful perseverance in the face of opposition, and continued faithfulness in ministry have only deepened my respect for him. Sitting under CJ’s Christ-centered preaching in Sovereign Grace Church continues to profoundly shape my life, as does his friendship and integrity. He is one of the finest pastors I’ve ever known and it’s a joy to be on a church plant with him as I begin my 7th decade.
My point in sharing this is to thank and glorify God by giving “honor to whom honor is owed” (Rom. 13:7). As I grow closer to seeing the face of my Savior, I want to become more grateful, not less. Beginning with my amazing wife, God has provided a multitude of faithful friends over the years without whom I would be less joyful, less fruitful, and less like Christ.
But I still have far to go. So at 60 years, my prayer is that the Father would continue to bring people into my life whom the Spirit will use to help me be even more joyful, more fruitful, and more like Christ.
Whatever age you happen to be, may that be your prayer as well.
(Image courtesy of shutterstock.com)